By Debra Davis
All jokes aside, April 1 will bring big changes for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and former Director Dr. Gary Lemme.
Lemme is retiring from the post he’s held the past decade. He’s guided Extension through monumental achievements, challenges and changes, all while focused on improving the lives of Alabamians. The Alabama Farmers Federation honored him with its Cultivator Award at the Commodity Organization Meeting Feb. 2 in Montgomery.
“There is no greater reward than to be honored by the stakeholders I worked alongside for the past 10 years,” said Lemme, 69. “I am so pleased with the success Extension has achieved, and I am grateful to have been a small part of that.”
The Cultivator Award, which is given by the state’s largest farm organization, recognizes individuals who nurture relationships that benefit farmers and rural families.
Lemme, a soil scientist, moved to Alabama from South Dakota State University where he was the former dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from South Dakota State, he completed his doctoral work at the University of Nebraska. He’s also held a variety of leadership positions at several land-grant institutions, including Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Hawaii.
Moving to Alabama was a big change for the Keister, Minnesota, native, who admits his accent made him the butt of many jokes. But, the burly man with the big laugh immediately embraced Southern living.
“I’ve learned to like grits and love barbecue,” said Lemme, who is passionate about agriculture and the role Extension plays in farming and 4-H.
He’s developed a system that became his leadership mantra.
“I use the 4-R method: Relevant programs, Research-based, Relationships with stakeholders and Results,” he said. “I tried to make sure everything we were doing in Extension and 4-H included those Rs.”
Both Extension and 4-H grew under Lemme’s leadership. The 4-H program increased from 6,000 members to more than 50,000. The small-business development initiative helped establish countless new businesses — many owned and operated by minorities. Other growth areas came in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, walking trails and farmers markets.
“I think the most rewarding part of my career is seeing others become successful,” Lemme said. “That includes individuals and communities, from farmers, business owners and 4-Hers to ordinary citizens who improved their lives through an Extension program.”
Lemme said he has valued his relationship with the Federation since coming to Auburn; the importance of that connection was always top of mind. His office was in Duncan Hall, named in honor of late Alabama Polytechnic Institute Professor L.N. Duncan, who helped organize Alabama Farm Bureau 100 years ago.
“The significance and the importance of the relationship between Auburn University and the Alabama Farmers Federation has always been evident to me,” Lemme said. “To be honored by this great organization for my work here is particularly humbling.”
Federation President Jimmy Parnell praised Lemme’s service to the organization and the state.
“Dr. Lemme recognized the value of 4-H in shaping agriculture’s future leaders, and he invested in strengthening the program,” Parnell said. “He was committed to hearing from Extension’s farmer stakeholders and never missed an opportunity to visit with Federation members at meetings or on their farms. He also enhanced Extension communication efforts and worked closely with the Federation to share information through a variety of channels, including Neighbors magazine and Simply Southern TV.”
Lemme said he plans to stay active and involved in agriculture during retirement, although he’s not sure what that will look like. He and wife Terry have been married 48 years. He said they look forward to enjoying more time with their son and his family — especially their 10-year-old grandson.